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The Narrows by Alexander C. IrvineThree stars

Buy from IndieBoundAlex Irvine is one of contemporary fantasy’s more challenging authors. Anyone doing his part to bring originality and skewed perspectives to a genre far too beholden to formula is someone you should be reading. Irvine’s third novel, The Narrows (the prologue of which was published in the May 2005 issue of F&SF as “The Golems of Detroit”), is as singular and uncompromising as anything in fantasy today. Which means that it won’t be accessible, I think, to any but the most daring of readers. Irvine has managed to produce a story that is oddly absorbing and off-putting in equal measure. But it’s not one that can be dismissed. 

The Narrows can, on a thematic level, be seen as a story about how people cope in the midst of chaos. Its plot is chaotic itself, perhaps too much so for its own good. Quite often it makes about as much sense as some of the later seasons of The X-Files. But there’s a dreamlike quality to the entire experience — and not just in the scenes where we witness the protagonist’s dreams — that’s hard to dismiss. Do I admire this novel? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it? I’m not sure — at times very much, at others less so. Would you like it? Depends, I suppose, on whether your tastes run to a bit of Terry Gilliam filtered through David Lynch, with a splash of Coen Brothers into the mix. If that doesn’t help make up your mind for you, I don’t know what will.

The plot superficially concerns wartime espionage. Jared Cleaves is a young man old before his time. The setting is 1943, as World War II rages throughout the globe — but in Irvine’s parallel universe, a war fought with the assistance of magical entities, golems, frost giants, maybe even werewolves, supernatural WMD’s that are as unpredictable and hard to control as the real ones we fear today. Jared works in a Detroit Ford factory, in a wing of the plant taken over by a covert US program to build golems for the front lines. As the result of a childhood hand injury, he has been unceremoniously 4-F’ed out of regular service. It is indicative of the different times we live in today that Jared feels humiliated by this. There was a time when we fought wars from a moral high ground, to defend honorable notions, and when military service was a noble calling, the country united rather than torn apart by polarized ideologies.

Jared’s life takes a strange turn when he is ordered by his supervisor to find out what is going on in another Ford plant where his wife is doing the Rosie the Riveter thing. A section of this plant has been closed off and commandeered by a shadowy government organization called the OEI — Office of Esoteric Investigations — who are evidently at loggerheads with the group Jared works for. Why his boss wants to know this, and especially why he’s going about asking in such a strange roundabout way, raises some suspicions. Especially when Jared finds him meeting secretly late at night with a mystery man in a bowling alley. Who could this be? And whose side is he on?

As with most spy stories, The Narrows has a really, really, really convoluted plot. Jared finds himself pulled at both ends, by his boss, by the OEI, by his boss’s contact and another entirely mysterious character called Dash who seems to have popped out of nowhere. At its most rudimentary level, the central mystery — who’s working for whom, and what they hope to accomplish — becomes easier to guess and grasp as the story moves deliberately along. But Irvine throws in all but the kitchen sink to boot. There are what seem to be sheer red herrings, such as the strange Native American who lives down the street from Jared, who disappears when his house burns down, and who may have hexed Jared’s car with an amulet. There’s the spectre of a mysterious red dwarf, who once appeared to Jared in his childhood, precipitating his accident. He’s appeared vividly in Jared’s dreams ever since, and his appearance always seems to presage disaster. But no disaster of any significance has happened to Jared, and the OEI — who know all about this creature and appear to want to try to control it — seems to think there’s something looming ahead for all Detroit. And indeed, the book’s final chapters erupt in a Boschian orgy of near anarchy.

That most of the book is terribly confusing is often a dramatic asset. Jared is just as confused, and thus we empathize with him effortlessly. After a while, though, you do want to shake Irvine by the lapels and plead with him to get somewhere with all this. Meanwhile, the espionage storyline is interwoven with a heartwarming account of Jared’s personal life, detailing his bottomless love for his baby daughter and concern that his marriage, if not exactly on the rocks, has lost that loving feeling. These scenes work beautifully, largely because they skirt sentiment, thanks to Irvine’s sharp wit (he’s got a gift for snappy, snarky prose) and warm approach to character development, but most effectively because they help to communicate what I think is the book’s main theme: that in times of chaos and hardship, the best we can do is persevere, do our part, and hold on to that which is precious. A demanding story whose rewards, like the act of espionage itself, take some effort to uncover, The Narrows is a novel best recommended to adventurous readers whose tastes are anything but narrow.